Big Fish Audio has long been at the forefront of creating virtual instruments and soundware around a musical idea. Often, it’s the latest emerging sub-genre in hip-hop or EDM that a composer or producer needs to know. In Vintage VI (recently renamed from "Vintage Vibe" to avoid confusion with the electric piano builder and vintage gear repair shop of that name), that idea spans from the mid-’50s to the early ’70s, taking a musico-cultural walkabout that wears sandals in San Francisco and go-go boots in London, with stops in Motown and Memphis. It combines a full band worth of period-authentic instruments with quick-access effects and tone shaping. Let’s take a closer look.
PROS: Well-curated selection of classic keyboards, guitars, basses, and drums. Both the sampling approach and the great effects make getting a retro sound quick and fun. Drum kits are both high-quality and programmable enough to justify a virtual instrument all their own.
CONS: No synth sounds. In Kontakt Player, the sounds themselves aren’t nearly as editable as the effects.
Bottom Line: From hippie-psychedelic to Austin Powers mod, Vintage VI creates an authentic retro sound so that you don’t have to.
$199.95 download or boxed DVD | bigfishaudio.com
The keyboard section has several clean and dirty variants of Rhodes and Fender Piano Bass, Wurly, Clavinet, Hammond, and combo organs including Farfisa Compact, Vox Continental, and even an air-blown Emenee toy organ. Across the board, the samples are full of character. The Rhodes has plenty of both sparkle and bark, and its harmonic profile leans slightly Wurly as some real Rhodes pianos did. While the Hammonds don’t have drawbars, they’re grindy, full, and warm. However, on patches that have harmonic percussion, it triggers polyphonically, i.e. not vintage-correctly.
Key-switches trigger variations such as drawbar registrations, Clav pickup settings, and the like. Other than that, the user interface generally doesn’t get you inside the keyboard sounds at the “synth editing” level (not counting the deeper editing you can do in the full version of Kontakt, of course). Instead, it focuses on the effects (keep reading), which are excellent and can get a lot of tonal variation out of one instrument sound.
Guitars and Basses
The expected Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, and Rickenbackers all deliver authentic tone, key-switched variations, and tons of expression. “Guild Acoustic Clean” was a standout that made me want to play the guitar part from Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.” Often, different velocities will vary the amount of sustain, so be sure to experiment.
My favorite bass was “1950s Gibson EB2 Clean,” which put a dense, browned-butter foundation under anything it touched—I’m reaching for it on all kinds of tracks now. A couple of surf guitar options are dutifully Dick Dale, and if there’s a better sound to open a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” than Vintage VI’s electric sitar, I haven’t heard it.
All guitar and bass sounds feature a legato/portamento mode that aids realistic note slides, and has presets optimized for playing different intervals. The trade-off is that this makes the instrument monophonic, so you’d use it mainly for lead and bass parts. A “release retrigger” option combines last-note priority with retriggering of the first held note when you let go of other notes. With a little practice, this facilitates guitar techniques such as hammer-ons.
Drums and Percussion
The drums just may be most flexible and powerful aspect of Vintage VI; Big Fish would probably have had no trouble marketing it by itself as a retro drum instrument. The names any drum aficionado would search out are all here: Rogers, Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch, and the like. Sampling is hi-fi and, to my ears, loop-free.
Where the keyboards were sparse on user editing, the drums are just the opposite. Clicking on a drum or cymbal in the graphical kit brings up a pane of parameters where you can swap out pieces, tune them individually, and adjust several velocity response settings for each. Also adjustable for each piece are the “humanize” settings, which use round-robin sampling and velocity response to vary pitch and volume, avoiding the telltale “drums on a keyboard” repetition.
The drums’ mixer pane is surprisingly sophisticated for this type of all-in-one product. In it, you can blend close, overhead, and room mic positions—and access insert effects (such as EQ, dynamics, and saturation) per drum. Then, send-based effects include reverb, chorus, flanger, and delay. You can also customize the keyboard mapping of drum hits. Seriously—both the audio quality and programmability of the drums made me do a double take.
Instruments in the Percussion folder comprise four presets that cover the Latin and orchestra/band percussion. One is an extended rack of Roto-Toms, so you’re covered if your definition of vintage extends to the ’80s.
All instrument types except the drum kits (which have the effects in the mixer) put 12 effects front and center in the main window. Though the stompbox-like chain varies based on the patch, staples include a transient shaper, rotary speaker, stereo widener, distortion, cabinet modeler, four-band parametric EQ, bus compressor, and tape simulator. Next are sends: delay, chorus, flanger, phaser, and reverb. If you drag another VV instrument into the same Kontakt rack, its send effects are independent and can have different settings.
Clicking any effect’s Edit button opens a pane of parameter knobs—the speed for the rotary effect (surprisingly good given that this isn’t a dedicated B-3 plug-in) is in here, so assign a physical control to it if you want it at hand’s reach. The effects sound great, and the way they’re presented makes it inviting to just click away until you get a sound you like.
Home studio denizens tend to go for specialization in our virtual instrument racks. That can make it tempting to dismiss an all-in-one approach as less than serious, but I suspect that serious composers who work under deadlines will think differently about Vintage VI. You could easily spend far more time choosing the right sample, layering the right audio plug-ins on it, tweaking their settings, and by the time the track sits in the mix how you want, wind up with a sound very close to what VV would’ve produced in just a few clicks.
This becomes pertinent when your deadlines are for a non-musician client who described their vision in non-musician terms. If those terms are meant to evoke a time when neither cigarettes nor unprotected intimacy were considered bad for you, Vintage VI is the quickest route from blank DAW arrange window to “Where’s my check?” that we’ve yet seen.